A Pleasant Surprise

As I was preparing for a lesson this afternoon, I noted in some surprise that not only was the study I was going to be teaching by a female composer, but by a female composer I’d not heard of.

RCM Grade 5 Study #15, “Skipping Rope,” is by (Y)elena Fabianovna Gnesina. She doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page in English (yet!), but here’s what The Free Dictionary has to say about her:

Born May 18 (30), 1874, in Rostov-on-Don; died June 4, 1967, in Moscow. Soviet pianist and teacher. Honored Art Worker of the RSFSR (1935).

Gnesina graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1893 as a piano student of V. I. Safonov and devoted herself to teaching. She was a founder and director of Gnesin’s School of Music (from 1895) and Gnesin’s Music Pedagogic Institute (from 1944), where she worked as artistic supervisor and professor. As a teacher Gnesina developed the finest traditions of the Russian school of piano. Her students included the pianist L. N. Oborin and the composer A. I. Khachaturian. She was awarded two Orders of Lenin, two other orders, and various medals.


It looks as though I have some research to do!

Composer, conductor, musician, poet, and writer R. Nathaniel Dett

History Hunt: R. Nathaniel Dett

This week (well…it was supposed to be last week, but I had a ton of errands), we’ll be meeting our second Canadian of History Hunt, someone who actually lived fairly near me! It was a really neat discovery for me, and I’m planning on going out of my way to introduce my music students to him as soon as I can track down some of his works.

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville (now a part of Niagara Falls), Ontario, Canada on October 11, 1882.

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

Ontario, Canada, birthplace of R. Nathaniel Dett

At first, Dett’s musician parents didn’t realise that their youngest son had inherited their gift, but that was soon to change. While two of his older brothers were receiving piano lessons, Dett began to copy them. He played their pieces–but without the sheet music they were using. When his brothers’ teacher found out, she was so impressed that she started teaching him for free!

When Dett was eleven, his family moved to the United States side of Niagara Falls. There, he continued his piano lessons and later, around when he was fourteen, he took a job as a bellhop at a local hotel. When he had the time, he would play the piano located in the lobby, which earned him more than a few fans.

The next year, in 1897, Dett made a decision. While he was setting up chairs in the hotel parlor for a visiting bass singer (who had actually been his Sunday School superintendent), he told himself that the next time he moved chairs, it would be for his own recital. Sure enough, later that summer, he was able to put on a piano recital in the same hotel parlor.

When he was sixteen, Dett became church organist at a church on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. In 1901, Dett began studying at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory of Music; two years later, he quit his job as church organist to join the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. There, he majored in both piano and composition, which would have been a tremendous amount of work. It also would have been expensive, but luckily, when Dett gave a benefit concert after his first year to raise money for his classes, one of the attendees was so impressed that he promised to help him pay for his lessons.

While Dett was at Oberlin, he heard a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s American quartet that changed the course of his life. This work for strings was composed using traditional folk songs, and as Dett listened, he remembered his grandmother, who had sung songs written by African-Americans while enslaved. Dett had never been comfortable with the reminders of such a terrible time those songs brought. But now, he became determined to keep the memory of these songs alive, so they wouldn’t fade away.

In 1908, Dett graduated from Oberlin, holding a Bachelor of Music degree with honours. He was the first Black person to earn this degree at Oberlin. That wasn’t the last time Dett studied music, though: he earned degrees and honourary degrees from universities all over the United States, including the highly prestigious Harvard University. By far, Dett’s biggest learning trip was to Paris, France, later in his life. There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the older sister of last week’s History Hunt composer, Lili Boulanger.

After Dett’s graduation, he began teaching at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. In 1911, he showed he was a man of many talents by publishing a book of poetry he dedicated to his mother. He spent the next few years teaching at two more universities and studying how to teach choirs, and then, in 1914, he gave two piano recitals that cemented his reputation as a composer and a pianist–one of which was at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Club in Chicago, Illinois. (This club was named after a previously featured History Hunt composer, who you can read about here.) He also entered a composition contest that same year put on by the Music School Settlement of New York and came second.

During World War I, Dett wrote music to keep up the spirits of both Canadians and Americans alike. He also got married, in 1916, to Helen Elise Smith, who was the first Black person to graduate from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Art (which later became part of the famous Julliard School of Music).

After the war, Dett founded the National Association of Negro Musicians in 1919, and was its president between 1924 and 1926. The next year, he published an essay in four parts called Negro Music, which was an analysis of the state of Black folk songs and how they might best be preserved. This essay won him a Bowdoin Prize from Harvard. These prizes are “some of Harvard’s oldest and most prestigious student awards” (Harvard); winning one was very significant indeed. He also won a Francis Boott prize from Harvard in the same year, this time for his composition “Don’t Be Weary, Traveller.” And, on top of that,  later on, one of the groups to commission compositions from him was the TV station CBS, who asked for two separate symphonies!

After teaching at numerous universities, Dett settled at Hampton Institute in Virginia. There, he became the university’s first Black Director of Music by 1926 and united the university choir with local singers. With Dett at its head, the resulting choir went on numerous tours all across the United States and even to Europe and became very popular indeed. They performed in famous venues such as Carnegie Hall and Constitution Hall–the very same location that, eight years later, would refuse to allow Marian Anderson to perform for racist reasons. (See my History Hunt post on Marian Anderson for more information.)

Dett’s determination to preserve and help Black traditional music grow lives on even today. The Nathaniel Dett Chorale states on its website that it “is Canada’s first professional choral group dedicated to Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues.” Dett would have been proud indeed.

Below is one of Dett’s most popular pieces from the suite In the Bottoms,  “Juba,” which is based on traditional Black music and dance.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
R. Nathaniel Dett at AfriClassical.com
R. Nathaniel Dett at Afrocentric Voices In “Classical” Music
Nathaniel Dett at The Canadian Encyclopedia
Roots and The Chorale at The Nathaniel Dett Chorale
Nathaniel Dett at Black History Canada
Robert N. Dett at the African American Registry
Dett, R. Nathaniel at BlackPast.org
R. Nathaniel Dett’s Views on the Preservation of Black Music by Jon Michael Spencer
Robert Nathaniel Dett Facts at YourDictionary
Bowdoin Prizes for Undergraduates at Harvard University
Dett Wins Francis Boott Prize at The Harvard Crimson
Juba dance at Wikipedia.org
R. Nathaniel Dett at Wikipedia.org (Image Source)


Ruth Crawford Seeger

History Hunt: Ruth Crawford Seeger

This week, we’re meeting another pianist from the first half of the 20th century! However, she’s someone who composed music in a very different style from last week’s featured musician, Florence Price.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (born Ruth Porter Crawford) was born on July 31, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio. Because her father was a travelling minister, she spent her childhood moving from place to place. Her mother, Clara, however, made sure she had the opportunity to learn to play the piano, starting when Seeger was six. Clara herself was a pianist whose parents hadn’t been at all supportive of her love of music, and so she wanted to be sure her daughter got the chances she didn’t. She became one of Seeger’s piano teachers as well while Seeger was young.

Seeger also sang with her family and composed on her own, but it seems that, at first, music wasn’t her greatest passion. In fact, when she was a teenager, like some of our previous History Hunt musicians, she wanted to be something other than a composer or performer when she grew up. In Seeger’s case, she wanted to be a writer!

When she graduated from high school, she took a job at Foster’s School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. Bertha Foster, who ran the school, had been Seeger’s piano teacher for years; when money had grown too tight for Seeger’s family to pay for lessons any longer, Foster had kept teaching her for free.

However, soon Foster moved her school to Miami, and Seeger left Florida to study at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois. Her plan had been to stay in Chicago for one year–just long enough to get her teacher’s certificate for piano. But Seeger fell in love with composing, and her one-year stay became eight full years of learning.

During this time, Western art music was undergoing serious changes. Composers wanted to completely break away from the musical traditions of the past and experiment with new ways of composing, using new sounds and new forms. Seeger was one of those musicians. She wrote music that sounded very strange to many people’s ears–but those who understood the new way of writing music also understood her brilliance.

While she was still studying in Chicago, she was one of six featured younger composers in a concert put on by the League of Composers, whose current goal is “to engage audiences by presenting performances of new music of the highest caliber written by emerging and established living composers in the context of 20th and 21st-century masterpieces.” It was an honour indeed, though certainly not the last she would receive.

A year after she graduated from the American Conservatory of Music, in 1930, she became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, a prize that let her travel to Europe for a year to compose. While there, she wrote her most famous composition, String Quartet 1931, which the Encyclopædia Britannica calls “astonishing.” Small wonder she’s often called “the most significant American female composer of the twentieth century” (American Folklife Centre).

After she returned to the United States, another phase in Seeger’s life began. With her new husband, she turned to recording American folk songs for the Library of Congress, to preserve this unique music for future listeners. She also wrote arrangements of this music and put together a short series of songbooks for children, which are still in use today.

Toward the end of her life, Seeger returned to composing–it’s never too late to return to something you love, after all. Though she still isn’t nearly as famous as she deserves to be, through her website and in interviews her daughter, Peggy, is making sure that her mother isn’t forgotten.

Below is an example of the new music of the 20th century that Seeger was so fond of, the Prelude No. 2 that she wrote while studying at the American Conservatory of Music. If you’d like to hear more of her works, Youtube has a number of examples, including her String Quartet 1931.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Judith Tick
Ruth Crawford Seeger Biography by David Lewis
Ruth Crawford Seeger Children’s Books & CDs on Peggy Seeger’s official website
Ruth Crawford (Seeger) on Naxos.com
Ruth Crawford Seeger on Encyclopædia Britannica
About the Seeger Family at the American Folklife Centre
Review of Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Larry Starr
Ruth Crawford Seeger – Andante for Strings by Phillip Huscher
Ruth Crawford Seeger on Wikipedia.org
Ruth Crawford Seeger Press Kit (Image Source)

Florence Price

History Hunt: Florence Price

This week, our featured musician is someone who not only was a great composer in her own right, but was the music teacher of a previously featured History Hunt composer, Margaret Allison Bonds. She also happens to share a birthday with me!

Florence Beatrice Price (birth name: Florence Beatrice Smith) was born on April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. While her father wasn’t a musician, her mother was–on top of her other work, she taught piano lessons to various students, including her little daughter. And she started early: Price’s first public performance was when she was just four years old.

At eleven years old, Price reached another milestone long before most, through becoming a published composer (though it wasn’t until she was sixteen that she actually was paid for her work). On top of that, she graduated from high school when she was only fourteen, and as valedictorian, no less!

After she graduated, Price went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts to continue her studies. At this time in the United States, a lot of the progress that had been made to ensure African-Americans were treated equally was being undone, both in laws and in everyday life. So, to be sure Price could go to the best school for her abilities, her mother wrote down on the application form that Price was from Pueblo, Mexico. Though there was a great deal of prejudice against Mexicans in the United States, Price’s mother believed being seen as Mexican instead of African-American would increase Price’s chances of being accepted as a student.

Price’s mother was right to worry about her daughter: while Price loved performing and composing, her real dream was to become a doctor. However, the odds against not only a woman, but an African-American one, fulfilling this dream were so high that Price decided to use her gift for music instead.

While it seems Price might have written a symphony while studying in Boston, sadly, as is the case with much of her work, the music for this symphony is lost. We do know, however, that Price graduated when she was only nineteen with degrees in both organ performance and music education with a focus on piano. She moved back to her hometown and set up shop as a piano teacher at first Cotton Plant–Arkadelphia Academy and then, a year later, Shorter College. And in 1910, when she was twenty-three, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and became head of the music department at Clark University.

After she married in 1912, Price taught privately and composed. During this period, she applied to join the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association–but due to racist leadership, her application was rejected.

As time went on, life became increasingly dangerous for African-Americans living in Arkansas and other southern states. Because of this, Price and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where prejudice was somewhat less. There, Price had the opportunity to continue her studies and did so, at not one, not two, but six different universities!

She also began publishing more music. In 1928, she received a prize and the right to publish her work At the Cotton Gin (which must have come as a surprise to her, because her husband secretly sent in the work) and she also got a contract with a different publisher to release music to help beginning pianists learn.

She spent a while living with her student, Margaret Allison Bonds, and during that time, she composed music for radio ads, played organ for silent films, and composed pop music under the name Vee Jay. When she broke her foot in 1931, Price wasn’t upset–in fact, she thought it was a stroke of excellent luck. At last, she could work on the symphony she carried in her head!

It was this work, Symphony in E Minor, as well as her Piano Sonata in E Minor, that brought her both fame and fortune when she published them. Suddenly, Price was winning prizes for her compositions–with a little help from Bonds, who would spend hours helping her copy music by hand to submit to competitions. And with this symphony Price broke a major barrier: she became the first black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. In this case, it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the critics who heard Price’s music praised it universally.

That wasn’t the only orchestra to play her music, either. Soon, orchestras in Michigan and Pennsylvania were performing her work, as well as multiple orchestras in both Chicago and New York. Later, her music was even played by orchestras in Europe. And Marian Anderson, another History Hunt musician, performed one of Price’s vocal pieces during her famous White House concert in 1939.

For the rest of her life, Price continued teaching and composing. She was a proud member of the Chicago Club of Women Organists, whose other members were equally proud to play Price’s compositions. Even if her truest dream was not music, Price lived a rich, rewarding life.

Sadly, nowadays, it can be very difficult to track down recordings of Price’s compositions. Though she wrote over three hundred pieces in her lifetime, many of her works have been lost, and most are out of print. I can only hope that someday, her music will be both easy to find and well known by everyone.

Below is the third movement of Price’s Symphony in C Minor, as performed by The Women’s Philharmonic:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Florence Price, Composer, by Barbara Garvey Jackson
Florence Beatrice Smith Price at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Florence Beatrice Price at Biography.com
Florence Beatrice Price at AfriClassical.com
MUSA 19 – Florence Price at Music of the United States of America
Price, Florence Beatrice Smith at BlackPast.org
Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor by Frank J. Oteri
Screening of Florence Price documentary featured at Nov. 5 SAU Mallory Lecture at Southern Arkansas University (image source)

Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge with Haitian Ambassador Joseph L. Dejean

History Hunt: Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge

Note: This post discusses racist subject matter. Discretion is advised.

This week, we’re back to Britain to meet a composer of many names–and just as many talents.

Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge was born on March 10, 1866 in a suburb of London, England. Her mother was a white opera singer (and supposed Swedish countess) Amanda Pauline von Brandt and her father was the famous Black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who also was a talented singer.

Because of her parents’ musical background, Aldridge and her siblings’ musical talents were strongly encouraged. Her mother would take them to classical music concerts at the famed Crystal Palace, and Aldridge was able to study both singing and piano almost from the start of her life. And it paid off–when she was fifteen, Aldridge sang with an orchestra at the very same Crystal Palace she’d visited as a little girl!

When she was seventeen, Aldridge won one of nine scholarships for singers to study at the Royal College of Music–the same college where Samuel Coleridge-Taylor studied first violin and then composition. There she was lucky enough to study with the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, who had a music teacher in common with her mother.

Aldridge was an excellent student who had very good report cards, and within three years of starting classes at the Royal College of Music, she began her performance career. It was here she started using another name: Amanda Ira Aldridge. She was proud of her father’s achievements and wanted to show it–and to show that she had inherited every bit of his genius.

At her performances, she sang a wide range of music, including works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Maud Valérie White (soon to be featured on History Hunt!). She became a very popular singer who received excellent reviews praising not only her voice but her intelligence–impressive for the prejudiced time she lived in.

Later, Aldridge took on yet another name: Montague Ring. This time, however, she used it not for performing, but for composing.

Her first published piece was called “Clorinda.”

Clorinda, by Montague Ring

Clorinda, Aldridge’s first published composition (under the name Montague Ring).

Her next compositions, however, are harder to understand. During this time, in Britain and the United States, there was a type of music that was very popular, called “coon songs.” They were used by white people to laugh at black people and the way it was thought they lived. In Britain, many people didn’t know that these songs weren’t a normal part of American music, but that didn’t mean the songs weren’t very racist. And while most composers of “coon songs” were white, not all of them were.

It’s hard to know what Aldridge’s reasons were for writing such ugly music. She might have been one of the people to think these songs were only an American tradition. She might also have been affected by the racism of the time. When someone is surrounded by people telling them they aren’t as good as everyone else, even if they know the others are wrong, it can be hard not to believe it a little. Regardless, it’s important to remember that this music once existed so that we can learn to never make it again.

That said, Aldridge was still a skilled composer, and she made sure that many of her pieces weren’t too hard for ordinary people to play. She also worked with local poets and African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to promote their works through her music.

Even when she was busy with composing, Aldridge continued to perform. In fact, she and her sister Luranah even performed together in a concert in 1914, taking turns singing.

Unfortunately, Aldridge’s singing career ended too soon: a bad case of laryngitis left her voice damaged. She could sing short phrases, but she could no longer perform as she once had. She also stopped publishing her compositions–her last piece was released in 1934–and maybe stopped composing altogether. No one knows why. But she still didn’t give up on music, because by that time, she had become an extremely well-respected singing teacher. In fact, some of the greatest singers of her time studied under her, including Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson–previously featured on History Hunt!

Aldridge kept teaching long past the age most music teachers retire. In fact, when someone asked her when she was eighty-seven if maybe it was time to slow down, she answered, “Life without music would be unbearable. I cannot keep still. So many things are happening that I must be active to see it all.” (Andrews) And the very next year, Aldridge appeared on the TV show Music For You, even though she didn’t actually own a TV herself!

Unfortunately, most of Aldridge’s music is out of print, and so I was unable to find an example of her work to share. If anyone knows where I can find any of her music to listen to, I’d greatly appreciate it.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Amanda Aldridge, Teacher and Composer: A Life in Music by Joyce Andrews (Note: Outdated terminology for black people is used in this article. Mature subject matter is also discussed.)
Aldridge, Amanda Christina Elizabeth [pseud. Montague Ring] on Oxford Index
Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge on Wikipedia
List of music students by teacher: A to C: Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge on Wikipedia
Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge, aka Amanda Ira Aldridge on POC in Western Music History (Note: Tumblr is a 13+ website. This article is safe for all ages.)
Image source for image of Clorinda
In Search of Coon Songs, Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Song on The Parlor Songs Academy (Note: Discussion of racist subject matter and racist imagery in the article. Discretion strongly advised.)